Govt: Keep your distance from migrating Humpbacks Print E-mail
Wednesday, 16 April 2008 19:32

Govt: Keep your distance from migrating Humpbacks

By Amanda Dale, Royal Gazette, 16 Apr 2008


Picture by Andrew Stevenson

This boat stays outside of the recommended limit of 100 metres from a whale, as set out in the Department of Conservation Services 'Guidelines for Whale Watching.'


This month the migration of Humpback Whales past the Island offers the chance to see these wonders of nature up close — but not too close.

With the growing popularity of whale watching, more boats than ever before are giving people the opportunity of a lifetime. Conservationists, however, want to remind people of the guidelines in place to ensure that vessels keep a safe distance.

Whale watching in Bermuda relies on a system of 'self regulation'. However, under the Fisheries (Protected Species) Order, it is illegal to harass or disturb any marine animal, such as disrupting the normal behaviour pattern of whales or dolphins.

In order to keep marine mammals free from harm, the Department of Conservation Services has set out 'Guidelines for Whale Watching'. The Department says: "Whales are mammals and just like us, they need space to find food, to socialise and to rest. If we get too close, approach too fast, or make too much noise, we may be disrupting these activities, causing the animals unnecessary stress."

The recommendations include keeping a distance of 100 metres between your vessel and a whale, and operating at a maximum speed of seven knots within a 300 meter 'caution zone'. Boaters are advised to move at a constant slow, 'no-wake' speed, and to avoid sudden changes of speed or direction.

Whales must also be approached from the side, with vessels moving parallel to the direction in which they are heading. When stopping to watch these animals, place your gear selector in neutral and allow the motor to idle.

The guidelines also state: "Whales should not be pursued. If a whale moves away, do not chase it.

A limit of three boats within the 300 meter caution zone at any one time is recommended, with a maximum viewing time for any one boat of 30 minutes.

People are also urged not to swim with or feed the whales. If a whale approaches a boat of its own accord, either place your engine in neutral, continue on your course, or steer a straight course away from it. When leaving a whale, move off at a slow 'no wake' speed to the edge of the caution zone, avoiding engaging propellors.

Judie Clee, a guide with the Bermuda Underwater Exploration Institute's whale watching tours, said it was even more important to follow the guidelines when in the presence of a mother and calf.

"I would ask if people are able to identify a mother and calf, especially a newborn, to remember that the calf can't hold its breath for very long and can't dive very deep or swim as fast," she said.

"It's therefore on the surface a lot more than the adult whales and this makes it more vulnerable to being harassed."

Mrs. Clee said: "The migration of the Humpbacks is an exciting, wonderful thing happening right off our shoreline, but the more publicity about it, the more boats that will be out there. We're one of the very few places in the world where you can observe migratory whales very closely, so we all need to be cognizant of the guidelines."

Andrew Stevenson, the conservationist and filmmaker behind the Humpback Whale Film Project, said: "I find that most Bermudians are very respectful of the whales and don't over-crowd them. But at the same time I also recognise that not all the people out there on boats realise that there are formal guidelines from the Department of Conservation Services pertaining specifically to whale watching in Bermuda.

"These guidelines not only protect whales and dolphins, they are also designed to help whale watchers enjoy their encounters with these marine mammals, as pursuing a whale will only chase them away.

"In my experience, when I am driving my own boat, I will stay outside the caution zone of 300 metres for some time to observe the whales and to let them get used to the fact that there is a boat there and that it is not pursuing them. Often the whales will approach the boat. When that happens I turn the engine off."

Mr. Stevenson has the Department's approval to swim with the whales as he takes footage for his film project. He said: "It is when the whale approaches the boat that the best encounters will occur. Keeping a distance from whales and letting them come to the boat is the best possible approach.

"With the increasing number of boats attempting to whale watch it becomes increasingly important that we all follow the guidelines set out for this activity."

The guidelines can be obtained from the Department of Conservation Services on 293 2727 or viewed at Mr. Stevenson's website at:

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